As a trial opened Thursday to evict a woman and her five children from their apartment at Valencia Gardens, a public housing complex in the Mission, residents there said that the complex’s management company harasses and surveils its tenants, fails to communicate with them, and can be aggressive and unfair in its enforcement of the rules.
The John Stewart Company has been trying to evict Shantel McClendon, the mother of five children ranging from 18 months to 19 years old, for years. Since November 2017, they have given McClendon seven 14-day notices to quit, a technical term for eviction notices. McClendon said that each time she fixes the problem, management identifies another issue and she is quickly served with another notice.
“They keep on, they keep on,” McClendon said on Tuesday before the trial. “I feel like I’m being targeted, I feel like I’m being harassed.”
Residents of Valencia Gardens, a 250-unit public housing complex taking up nearly a whole block between Valencia and Guerrero between 14th and 15th Streets, said these tactics are not out of character for a management company that is overly aggressive in enforcing its rules while not doing enough to communicate with tenants. The company became more aggressive, some tenants said, after a new on-site manager, Carlos Uribe, began working for the management company.
“I wish there was more understanding between people in the community and the office,” said Patrick Kelley, referring to property management. “Right now they’re two separate things.”
Kelley, who lives a few doors down from McClendon in the same building, said he had never seen anything criminal, disruptive, or out of the ordinary from her unit. Instead, he said, the biggest issue was a management company that tries to solve problems with discipline instead of a conversation.
Judge Richard Ulmer, who began hearing McClendon’s case on Thursday, said he could decide as early as Monday if McClendon has the right to stay in the $700-a-month apartment where she has lived for 14 years. He could also move the proceedings to a jury trial.
During the proceedings on Thursday, the two sides fought over the history of the eviction notices. McClendon’s first notice was given in 2017 for owing $3,400 in back rent, which she was able to pay with the help of Hamilton Families, a nonprofit that works to prevent homelessness. But rent was not the only issue at that time, according to Mercedes Gavin, a lawyer for The John Stewart Company. Eight days after Hamilton Families made the payment, the company issued another eviction notice to McClendon.
Gavin said that the property management company failed to advise Hamilton Families of the other ongoing issues it had with McClendon because if the nonprofit had known, they would not have made the rent payment.
Judge Ulmer took issue with that tactic. “It sort of sounds like you’re hiding the ball to try to get the money from them,” he said to Gavin. “Why would you try to fool someone like that?”
The bigger issue, Gavin argued, was that Rasheed Loveless, the father of three of McClendon’s children, had been staying at the apartment without authorization. The rules at Valencia Gardens prohibit overnight guests from staying more than 14 nights per year.
McClendon said Loveless was there to help provide childcare and other help for her and her children while she dealt with the aftermath of a high-risk pregnancy.
The John Stewart Company said in its lawsuit that they are trying to evict McClendon in part because they allege Loveless engaged in illegal gambling and other unidentified criminal activity on or near the property in late 2018 and early 2019.
Loveless is currently serving a two-year sentence in state prison on a drug charge. It’s unclear when that sentence began.
Neighbors said they had seen no signs of criminal activity outside or near McClendon’s unit.
“It’s pretty much just kids playing outside there,” said Teakeysha Brittany, who lives across the street.
Management did meet with McClendon last July to try to resolve the issue of Loveless’s unauthorized stay. They suggested that Loveless apply to be a live-in aide for McClendon to help her deal with her high-risk pregnancy and recovery. However, public subsidy regulations did not allow a family member to become a live-in aid, which management said they did not know at the time they advised Loveless to apply.
Management denied the application in late September and filed an eviction lawsuit the following day.
McClendon, 35 years old, said she’s unsure why the John Stewart Company has continued to pursue the eviction. “It’s mind-boggling how you can want something like this for someone’s family,” she said.
Earlier in the week, Ryan Murphy of the Eviction Defense Collaborative, McClendon’s lawyer, said that the property manager had been unusually aggressive with his client. Murphy said if his client loses, she will be barred from subsidized housing for years.
“This is so disrespectful to the family and the kids,” said Murphy. “It’s over-policing of low-income families. It’s just so heartless.”
McClendon said she has never had a problem with management or a threat of eviction until Uribe arrived in 2016.
If McClendon is evicted, she said she doesn’t know where she and her family will go. Her $700-a-month rent in Valencia Gardens is thousands of dollars cheaper than market-rate housing in the area and she is currently unable to work. She said she might have to go to a shelter, something she was forced to do 18 years ago with her two youngest children before she got into public housing. “I couldn’t possibly see myself going back,” said McClendon, choking up a little. “With five kids? To a shelter?”
McClendon is not the only Valencia Gardens tenant who has experienced the threat of eviction from the new property manager.
Bridget, who started living in Valencia Gardens in 2010 and did not want to give her last name, has also faced a series of notices to quit since Uribe took over. The notices came for issues like an unauthorized pet and a sign on her front door. She also said she is being watched and followed by the complex’s security guards, who may be monitoring who comes in and out of her unit.
Like McClendon, Bridget said her problems began when Uribe took over and she had no issues with previous managers. “They were cool, they were friendly, I never got any eviction notice from them,” she said of previous management. “It was stress-free.”
She says things changed when Uribe took over. “Ever since he started, I was receiving eviction notices left to right,” she said. She keeps a binder of these notices and her communications with management.
Both tenants also noted that new cameras had been added on their street. One five-day notice to quit given to Bridget in 2016 read in part, “We have surveillance recordings showing you have had overnight guests that have not been reported to management.”
The overnight guest in question was her partner and the father of her son who lives in the unit, she said. Later, when Bridget’s mother became ill, her partner was able to become a live-in aide to care for her. But once Bridget’s mother passed away, he was again barred from staying overnight in the apartment more than 14 days per year. Bridget tried to add him to the lease, but he was denied after a credit check.
In March of this year, The John Stewart Company attempted to evict a teenager named Terrance Hall from Valencia Gardens. Management attempted multiple times to add him to an eviction notice issued for his grandmother while Hall was a minor. Hall’s grandmother passed away while fighting the eviction, and Hall was given his notice to vacate three days after her death.
Several other tenants not facing eviction still had complaints about treatment from security and felt that the manager was trying to surveil them and their guests. “It’s like a prison,” said Anthony Reyes in a nearby unit on Meadow Court.
For McClendon, the company has kept her and her family on the edge after more than a decade of stability in her housing. “I was safe, I felt,” she said. “Now I don’t feel safe.”
McClendon’s trial will continue Monday.